We have come to expect Gus Malzahn offenses to be close to unstoppable.
Auburn won one national title in 2010 and almost won a second in 2013 despite unremarkable defenses because of his attack. The Tigers' offense actually improved slightly from 2013 to 2014, jumping from sixth in Offensive S&P to fourth, but the team was let down by a defense that could charitably be described as leaky. The thinking coming into this season was that Auburn's offense would be excellent and the onus was on new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp to save the defense.
Two games into the 2015 season, Auburn's offense looks to be a significant step down from the 2010, 2013, and 2014 versions. The Tigers scored only twenty points in regulation against FCS Jacksonville State, with the last seven coming on a short field after a disastrous punt by the Gamecocks. Auburn had 376 yards of total offense in regulation, which would be fine against a quality opponent, but is shockingly low against an FCS team. This performance came on the heels of an underwhelming 327 yards and 24 offensive points against a Louisville team that followed up its opener by losing at home to Houston.
Quarterback Jeremy Johnson is not a dual-threat like previous Malzahn success stories Cam Newton and Nick Marshall, so he needs to be a successful passer to make up for his lack of running ability. Johnson isn't delivering in the air so far, as he is currently tenth in the SEC in passer efficiency. The one category in which he leads the conference is interceptions, where he is tied with Vanderbilt sophomore Johnny McCrary. And as Bill Connelly noted, Johnson's picks are not just the result of bad luck, as a whopping 52% of his non-completions have been defensed.
Auburn is also struggling to run the ball. The Tigers are currently eleventh in the league in yards per carry and have hit precious few big plays on the ground. The 2014, 2013, and 2010 teams finished second, first, and first, respectively.
There are a couple possibilities here. One is that Johnson is suffering because of an underperforming rush offense, without a feature back or a senior starting on the offensive line. A second possibility is Johnson's issues are hurting the running game, both because he isn't a running threat himself and because his passing has not been good enough. These two reasons are not mutually exclusive.
Speaking more broadly, it's worth asking whether a Gus Malzahn offense can be really good without a quarterback who presents a running threat. Leaving aside the 2006 season, when Malzahn was clearly not in total control of the Arkansas attack, here are Malzahn's college offenses, ranked by the starting quarterback's rushing yardage:
|Season||Starting Quarterback Rushing Yards||Offensive S&P Rank|
|2010 - Auburn||1473||1|
|2013 - Auburn||1068||6|
|2014 - Auburn||798||4|
|2012 - Arkansas State||438||22|
|2008 - Tulsa||186||17|
|2007 - Tulsa||119||19|
|2011 - Auburn||62||40|
|2009 - Auburn||-116||38|
Malzahn's three best offenses have been in the three seasons when his quarterback put up the three best rushing totals. Conversely, Malzahn's two worst offenses have been when his quarterbacks have not been a running threat.
Johnson has 18 rushing yards after two games, which would project to 117 yards over a 13-game season. Auburn's schedule has been easier in the first two games than it will be over the last eleven, so there is reason to suspect that Johnson will finish the season with a rushing total in double digits, not unlike Chris Todd in 2009 and Barrett Trotter in 2011.
The worrying parallel for Auburn fans would be to Urban Meyer's last season in the SEC. Like Malzahn, Meyer experienced great success in multiple places using a run-based spread offense. Coming into the 2010 season, Meyer's offenses had finished first, first, and ninth in the three preceding seasons with Tim Tebow at the helm. In 2010, Meyer replaced Tebow with Jeff Brantley, a five-star, pro-style quarterback, and the offense plummeted to 50th. Not surprisingly, Meyer has deployed a series of dual-threat quarterbacks at Ohio State and his offenses have been 16th, second, and first in Offensive S&P.
Now, there are necessary caveats. The season is only two games old, which gives Johnson plenty of time to improve. There is no reason to think that he can't be a better passer than Todd, Trotter, and Brantley. Malzahn is also a bright guy, so he ought to get the benefit of the doubt, especially considering his "bad" offenses still finished in the top 40 of S&P+. He'll certainly have his players' attention after the near disaster against Jacksonville State. And his 2010 and 2013 offenses both improved substantially over the course of the season as Malzahn figured out how to maximize their strengths.